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The journey to a sustainable RMG industry in Bangladesh

This article is an extract from the speech delivered by BWB Programme Manager Anne-Laure Henry-Gréard at the Sustainable Apparel Forum (SAF) held in Dhaka on 5 November 2019 

Let me begin with a quote by Bengali poet and Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

“You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”

I want to use these words as an inspiration for the journey we have all embarked upon in Bangladesh, and across its garment industry in particular. We all want to see a stronger, richer and more developed Bangladesh, capable of crossing Tagore’s sea with wind in its sails. To do so, as the poet put it, we cannot merely stare at the water. We need to venture the high seas, using sustainability as our tailwind.

As per its definition, sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainability encourages businesses to frame decisions in terms of years and decades, while considering more factors than simply the profit or loss involved.

Committing to a sustainable development may lead to more modest earnings results in the very short term. That may scare businesses off at first. This is understandable. Change would be hard to come by if we use only the beaten path of other successes. We may think good results will keep coming time and again. But the truth is, they won’t.

Our age requires businesses to be compliant, flexible and innovative to effectively play at the global level. They need to prepare today for the challenges of tomorrow. But manufacturers shouldn’t be left alone. This is not a David-and-Goliath-style struggle. This effort must be a concerted one, involving all levels of the supply chain. Results up to date already prove success is possible.

Experience from the Better Work programme across nine countries shows that sustainable changes and improved working conditions across the garment sector benefit workers and their families, eventually driving higher profitability for manufacturers over time.

What about Bangladesh?

The garments sector has so far played a pivotal role in uplifting the country’s economy. It created numerous jobs, pushed down the number of people living in poverty, and fostered female labour participation. As we very well know, the country’s US$34 billion a year garment export industry is today the second largest in the world.

Following the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, the industry has invested millions of dollars in improvement initiatives, reaching great successes.

Also, some of the top Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified factories are located in Bangladesh, showing how the country is making strides in green RMG production.

Today, we see a vibrant manufacturing industry, in which firms engage in innovation and training for their staff, but also on the right incentive framework and public policies led by the government.

Efforts that brought these incredible results to life are highly commendable.

Still, both the present and the future are stubbornly tapping their feet, asking us to do more. And they won’t stop until we do so.

Though salaries increased over the years, Bangladesh still has some of the lowest wages among RMG producer countries. Freedom of association also faces challenges.

Meanwhile, part of the industry’s “race to the bottom” on price at the lower end of the market places a pressure down the supply chain. This poses further hurdles to the implementation of sustainable compliance across the factory floor.

As a further test the fourth industrial revolution is underway, bringing with it a series of upheavals like robotics, automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence that the country needs to address very fast.

Bangladesh is also expected to graduate to middle-income country status in 2024, which means it could lose the EU trade preferences awarded to low-income countries if it does not continue on the path of legislative reforms in compliance with international labour standards.

At the same time, Bangladesh needs to ward off competition.

As the garment industry keeps searching for competitive production hubs worldwide, countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and now African countries like Ethiopia present new challenges for the local industry.

Sustainability, innovation and expertise development are thus not an option but a must for the Bangladesh’s apparel industry.

This is the only way the local sector can move to the next level, generate more decent employment and cement its position as a preferred outsourcing hub, thus contributing to the country’s overall sustainable growth.

We at BWB are eager to offer our contribution to reach these incredible goals. Our core ambition is to promote sustainable mechanisms for compliance which have an impact on productivity and efficiency. And this outreach should extend far beyond the programme itself.

When BWB talks about sustainability, it means all actors must play their part.

Governments, employers and workers are all elements of the same structure that sustains and further improves compliance with the Labour Law and core labour standards through enforcement and industrial relations. It is worth noting that this whole process must be supported by responsible business practices across the whole supply chain.

Responsible global brands and retailers are in fact also critical to the success of this mission. Through their concern for customers’ values and preferences for ethically sourced fashion, they help drive improvements across factories.

BWB’s sustainability strategy sees constituents and the private sector as being fully in the driver seat and defining their own version of sustainability. They must be equipped with the tools, framework and mind set to ensure that good working conditions are standard in the industry.

To do so, high on our sustainability agenda are consultations, knowledge sharing and capacity-building initiatives at enterprise, sector and national level. We see a role for BWB in forging a shared sense of purpose and implementing a joint roadmap that will build a strong, self-reliant culture of compliance.

Also, as part of the Sustainability Compact, which includes the European Union, the Government of Bangladesh, the United States, Canada and the ILO, alongside employers, trade unions and other key stakeholders, we aim to promote continuous improvements in labour rights and factory safety in the RMG industry.

We believe transparency across the whole supply chain is a key component to achieving improvements. It is also an essential stepping-stone on the road to an improved social compliance. The establishment of a platform that will allow factories to exchange best practices is underway and will specifically serve this purpose.

Five years into our existence, BWB’s outreach spans more than 530,000 workers in 230 factories, while working with 25 international brand partners. That is not yet enough.

We want to expand over the next years to help drive lasting and sustainable change across the industry. Plans are in the pipeline to establish a satellite office in Chittagong by 2020, where a growing number of BWB factories are located. We are also exploring opportunities to start a dialogue with the Export Processing Zones Authority, to contribute to continuous improvement of working conditions in the garment sector while maintaining the improvements already implemented.

We can proudly say that the longer a factory is engaged with BWB the more notable its increase in compliance is. We also know that factories that have completed most of the required fire, electrical and structural safety remediation work can then direct more resources to other aspects of sustainable compliance. These include the protection of workers’ rights, the promotion of social dialogue and gender equity and the improvement of occupational health and safety compliance, as well as enhanced productivity and efficiency.

As we already mentioned, automation in the RMG sector is in progress and Bangladesh has no other option but to embrace it. An ILO report on the transformation of the textile and clothing sector across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states that the textile, clothing and footwear sector is at the highest risk of losing jobs in the upcoming fourth industrial revolution.

Though automation will not affect the whole industry equally because many of its tasks cannot yet be completely replaced by machines, it is time for Bangladesh to increase its investment in training and education.

A vast portion of the workers employed in the clothing industry remains unskilled. Without targeted learning programmes, those workers, particularly women, will most certainly lose out.

But we can avoid this. If we all work together and concentrate our efforts in training and expanding labour market skills to ensure job retention, we won’t only have averted an unimaginable employment crisis. We will have also instigated the process of creating a higher value added industry. Such a sustainable industry will further fuel the country’s economic growth, job creation and social progress for women and men.

But the goal of accelerating the momentum of sustainability across Bangladesh’s apparel industry cannot forget the importance of gender equality for its overall achievement and realization.

And we still have work to do in this area.

While their proportion has quite significantly decreased, women still make up the majority of garment workers. Empowering and training them ensures their voices are heard and they can progress up the career ladder, while also combating sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. Those are key elements of the Better Work strategy, both at the global and local level.

To this end, BWB teamed up with IFC to provide 155 female factory operators with the necessary skills to become supervisors; 58 women were subsequently promoted to supervisory positions. The programme has also joined hands with UNICEF for the implementation of the Mothers@Work initiative. The project promotes maternity services and breastfeeding protection in 80 factories. This is an integral part of guaranteeing women’s access to decent work. In doing so, we ensure factories increase efficiency and productivity in their lines, retain skilled employees, while also facilitating inclusive and sustainable growth and investing in future generations. Both programmes are currently being scaled up in partnership with brands and manufacturers.

It is only through true sustainability in the country’s garment sector and a compliant value chain that we can guarantee inclusion, further growth and the retention of the industry’s global heavyweight status in the decades to come. A sustainable garment industry will in turn help shape up a sustainable society to be passed on future generations. It will continue to evolve, but always with the good of all people at its core.

So let’s not just stand and stare at its water. Let’s be bold, and make the journey together.